Monday, December 21, 2009

The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio: Movie Review

For Descartes, it was a fly. For Archimedes, it was a bathtub. For Shelley, it was a nightmare. And for Julianne Moore, there's nothing more inspiring than a bowl of jello and lots and lots of spilt milk. In this up-lifting family drama, Evelyn Ryan (Moore) is the optimistic, hard-working housewife whose days are occupied by washing, ironing, cleaning up talcum powder, and haggling with the milkman to provide for a bubbling brood of ten spirited children. With her husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson), showing more interest in drowning every paycheck at the liquor store, Evelyn cranks up her talent for words to enter jingle contests and wins a slew of prizes that prevent her family from living on the street. Throughout the years, Evelyn must face the trials of motherhood, her husband's addiction and incompetency, and the ever-looming stack of bills that stand between her family and bankruptcy. When a financial secret threatens to topple her busy household, Evelyn gather all her wits for a last chance to overcome 250,000 contenders - with 25 words or less.

Directed and adapted for the big screen by Jane Anderson (When Billie Beat Bobby, Madmen), The Prize Winner is based on a memoir by Terry Ryan (portrayed in the film by Ellary Porterfield). Julianne Moore is eminent in the role of Evelyn, whose unshakable resolve and blissful humor is the glue which keeps together a family teetering on the edge of financial and personal woes. Intially, viewers may perceive the character's persistent determination as transparent in the face of one challenge after another. There is one scene, however, in which Evelyn, discouraged by her family's latest predicament, hides her grief by weeping alone in an upstairs bedroom. Moore succeeds in combining a relentless spirit with a touch of humanity, thus creating a character whom viewers will admire not as a hero, but as a fine example of a good human being.

Midway to the opposite side of the spectrum is Woody Harrelson as Kelly Ryan, whose down-and-out nature is a result of an accident that retired his prospects in music to the heat and labor of a sweat shop. Harrelson portrays the character as an anti-hero in such back-to-back scenes in which he is the loving, diligent husband and the irresponsible patriarch. Following a reckless outburst in which Evelyn is inadvertently injured, audiences will feel a strange mix of resentment and sympathy, which Harrelson successfully evokes in Kelly, whom he describes as "a drowning man." Another performance of note is that of 16-year-old Ellary Porterfield as Terry "Tuff" Ryan, the most observant of the Ryan children, who inherits all her mother's flare, but has yet to develop a wisdom for restraint. While stranded at a gas station on a 100-mile trip to Indiana, Evelyn teaches Terry to take life in stride rather than misfortune in a scene that will bait a subtle smile from viewers for the quiet power of a mother-daughter relationship that is a highlight of this contemplative and emotional film.

Regarding technical merit, The Prize Winner is one of few films to break the fourth wall without being lame. The series of montages in which Evelyn directly addresses the audience are imaginative, but not imposing (including a trip on an envelope that gives a new meainging to "air-mail). Composer John Frizzel's original score adds a fifty's, classic feel to a midwest setting similar to Mayfield and 485 Mapleton Drive. A recurring theme on which the film does not focus directly, but in context, is anti-feminism as Evelyn struggles to maintain her houseland under the critical scrutiny of male authority. Chiefly, an absorbing and touching film that is likely to draw a few laughs and knowing smiles from family's that are, as Kelly Ryan would have it, just "too damn happy."

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The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio

Tell Tale: Movie Review

More like a tall tale. This horror/thriller/flop is an example of the trickle-down effect of mainstream, Halloween horror. Director Michael Cuesta (12 and Holding) makes a last-ditch effort to harness a few screams before the season of "Ho, ho, ho." Unfortunately, Tell Tale is more likely to coax the same reaction from audiences as Josh Lucas does from Brian Cox: a big "Ha, ha, ha," - and then some.

Lucas stars as Terry Barnard, a heart-transplant patient whose daughter, Angela (Beatrice Miller), suffers from fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), a rare genetic disorder that slowly alters the muscles and tissues of the body into bone. When Terry becomes romantically involved with Dr. Elizabeth Clemson (Lena Headey), the physician in charge of Angela's case, he is relieved to be on the road of recovery from financial and personal stress. Things go awry, however, when Terry experiences odd attacks, accompanied by flashbacks of which he is not familiar, when coming into contact with certain strangers. After discovering that his doner, a man named Vieillard, was brutally murdered, Terry realizes that his symptoms occur in the presence of Vieillard's killers and that his heart is seeking revenge for a crime more gruesome than he could ever conceive.

With the exception of Josh Lucas and Beatrice Miller, the cast of Tell Tale is expendable. Brian Cox (Running with Scissors, Troy) lingers as Detective Van Doren, a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed investigator who becomes aware of Terry's covert actions towards the film's antagonists and responds by goading him into the completion of his man-hunt. Likewise, Lena Headey (300) is the archetype for the age-old use of beautiful women on camera, which is to provide the the male lead with a shallow love-interest lacking any purpose of her own. The surprise ending does not enhance Headey's character. Rather, it is a desperate attempt to secure a reaction, any reaction, from audiences who will be more excited to see a documentary on plant growth. In slow motion. Tell Tale is a primary example of a film which does its best to undermine the much-loved horror genre - one debilitating beat at time.

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Tell Tale

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Precious: Movie Review

"I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair. And I want to be on the cover of a magazine. But first, I want to be on one of them BET videos. Mama said I can't dance. Plus she say who wanna see my big ass dance anyhow." Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe delivers a paramount performance as the abused, illiterate 16-year-old, Claireece Precious Jones. Molested and raped by her father from the age of three, Precious is pregnant - again. Raised in the projects of inner-city Harlem, Precious endures years of physical and emotional abuse from her sadistic, volatile mother, Mary (Mo'Nique). When her math teacher, Mr. Richer (Bill Sage), recommends her transfer to an alternative school, Precious is eager to prove that she is not the ignorant, ne're-do-well that her mother has entitled her. At her new school, Precious becomes a student of Ms. Blue Rain (Paula Patton), an implacable, but benevolent instructor of a diverse group of delinquent females. Under Ms. Rain's tutelage, Precious not only improves as a student, but also as a woman and mother with responsibilities that she is more than willing to undertake. Her dreams of independence and achievement are impeded, however, when Mary intends to force her back into the squalid and submissive lifestyle of which she has so long been a victim.

Precious is based on the 1996 award-winning novel Push, by Sapphire. The film adaptation has been in the works since 2007 and is Lee Daniel's second project as a director (Daniel's has been a producer on such films as Monster's Ball and The Woodsman). Gabourey Sidibe's powerful execution of the title character, Precious Jones, is a paradigm of acting at its finest. After the film's completion, Sidibe remarked that her acting experience was limited to minor roles as an indian and a pirate in a college production of Peter Pan. However, the scene in which she conveys a heart-breaking confession to her teacher and classmates will have viewers weeping for this unyielding and resilient heroine, an inspiration for young women of all backgrounds. Comedian and talk-show host, Mo'Nique, triumphs on screen with a phenomenal range as the sinister and mentally-afflicted Mary Jones, whose atrocious acts of violence and crude mentality will be difficult to digest for some viewers. Nevertheless, her performance is nothing short of monumental and sure to harness a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the 2010 Academy Awards.

Paula Patton (Idlewild) leads an average supporting cast of honorable mentions as Blue Rain, Precious's instructor at the alternative school who gives her shelter after a climactic rampage that threatens the life of Precious's infant son, Abdul. Grammy-award winning artist, Mariah Carey, is indistinguishable in her best role yet as the pragmatic and sympathetic Ms. Weiss, a social worker whose emotional support allows Precious to divulge her secret as a victim of incest. Exceptional minor roles are those of Chyna Layne, Xosha Roquemore, and Angelic Zambrana as Rhonda, Jo Ann, and Consuelo, students of the alternative school whose seeming indifference masks an ambition to pursue a host of diverse and hopeful dreams.

Precious is a film that some viewers will find literally painfully to watch for its gritty material and stark presentation of emotional and sexual trauma. For those who can stomach both, there is a message that emphasizes the conviction of the soul, irrepressible in the face of adversity. Ultimately, a must-see film for audiences of all circumstances and sure to be an inspiration that is truly precious in every word.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Blind Side: Movie Review

"Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die." Tim McGraw teaches more than Tennyson to Quinton Aaron in this heart-warming drama directed by John Lee Hancock and based on the inspriing true story of All-American offensive left tackle, Michael Oher. Taken from a drug-addicted mother at a young age, Michael "Big Mike" Oher (Aaron) is left to the mercy of the streets, toting a plastic bag with a single change of clothes (which he slips into the loads of customers at the local laundry). At first, Michael survives on the half-hearted hospitality of family friends who give him a couch to sleep on one night, and a foot out the door the next. When an unexpected intervention lands him a coveted spot at Wingate Christian School, Michael, with zero to no education and an IQ of 80, is disillusioned by the upperclass world of white-collar piers. Left to fall behind by a cohort of teachers, most of whom are indifferent to his situation, he catches the concerned eye of Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), a suburban mother of two who opens her home and heart to the gentle giant. As Michael adjusts to his new lifestyle (which includes an opportunity to shine on the high school football team), Leigh Ann learns a thing or two about what it's like to live, and struggle, on the opposite side of the train tracks.

Director John Lee Hancock has had considerable success with bids on the dark-horse drama. In 2002, working alongside Dennis Quaid, Hancock struck home with the emotional crowd-pleaser, The Rookie, which documented the rise of Jim Morris from high school science teacher to all-star pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Two years later, he commanded the set of the historical action-drama, The Alamo, starring Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett as Jason Patric as Jim Bowie. The Blind Side was Hancock's first experience working with Sandra Bullock and country-music star, Tim McGraw. The pair have a unique chemistry as Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose scenes together will charm viewers with a rare insight into a loving relationship between members of the upper-class. Bullock, as the indominatable Leigh Anne Tuohy, will have audiences cheering for a scene in which she stands up to an insolent gangster intent on leading Michael into the shady underworld of Hurt Village, the Hell's Kitchen of Uptown, Memphis. Tim McGraw is almost unrecognizable as fast food executive, Sean Tuohy, but mesmerizes with a profound recitation of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

Newcomers Lily Collins and Jae Head cap off a stellar supporting cast as the Tuohy children, Collins and SJ, while Academy Award winner, Kathy Bates, brings a bit of comedy to the forefront as Michael's eccentric, but encouraging tutor, Miss Sue. Two brief, but powerful performances of note are those by Adriane Lennox as Denise Oher, Michael's reclusive, drug-addicted mother, and Kim Dickens as Mrs. Boswell, the first of Michael's teachers to recognize his potential in the classroom. Last, but most definitely not least, is Quinton Aaron, who is taciturn for the most part in the role of Michael Oher, but captures audiences with an ability for physical expression that has not been seen at this caliber since Hollywood's silent era.

Tim McGraw ("Southern Voice") and Five for Fighting ("Chances") add a typical southern feel to an eclectic soundtrack that includes pop-singer, Lucy Woodward ("Trouble With Me"), 50's jazz group, the Dave Brubeck Quartet ("Unsquare Dance"), and the blues-rock, Woodstock-group, Canned Heat ("Going Up the Country"). Viewers, however, will find the silence in such climactic scenes as Michael's confrontation with an investigator from the NCAA and a showdown with the thugs from Hurt Village as tributes to a dynamic and poignant film that is sure to be a favorite of athletes, sports-lovers, and even sports-haters, alike.

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The Blind Side

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ponyo: Movie Review

From the Academy-awarding winning director/animator, Hayao Miyazaki, who captivated audiences in 2001 with the magical smash-hit, Spirited Away, comes this tenth installment to an unbeatable repertoire of animated wonders. Brunhilda is the inquisitive and lovable little gold-fish with a mind of her own, who, while on an outing with her father, Fujimoto (an overbearing aquatic alchemist), escapes on an adventure that will take her from the depths of the ocean floor to the hands of Sosuke, a five-year-old boy with a heart of a gold and an aptitude for the sea. Sosuke takes Brunhilda into his care and names her Ponyo, but Fujimoto, wary of the bond that is steadily growing between them, sweeps her away and back into the ocean, where he discovers that (after tasting Sosuke's blood) Ponyo is slowly, but surely changing from fish to human. While attempting to halt Ponyo's transformation, Fujimoto has other fish to fry. In the bowels of his underwater lab, he is concocting a dangerous elixer that will leave all earth at the mercy of the ocean's stunning, but brutal power. When Ponyo, in a daring attempt to return to Sosuke, inadvertently releases the concoction on the ocean and all its denizens, the adventure begins in a jaw-dropping deluge that literally floods the big-screen with animated sequences that define Miyazaki as the master of the anime-film genre.

Hayao Myazaki's career on the anime-film circuit began in 1979 with The Castle of Cagliostro, the second installment in the Lupin III film trilogy. After a slew of animated films that included such triumphs as Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki's Delivery Service, Myazaki's career took a significant leap with Princess Mononoke, the first animated film to win Picture of the Year at the Japanese Academy Awards. Despite his growing fame amongst Japanese movie-goers, Myazaki remained virtually unknown in the U.S.. That is until the 2001 release of the horror/fantasy thriller, Spirited Away. The film made history as the highest grossing film in Japan (surpassing Titantic) and garnered an Academy award in the U.S. for Best Animated film. Ponyo is Myazaki's second full-length animated feature after Spirted Away (the first was Howl's Moving Castle in 2004).

The film's original Japanese audio featured the voices of award-winning actress Yuki Amami (as Ponyo's mother, Gran Mammare), J-drama star Tomoko Yamaguchi (as Sosuke's mother, Lisa), and singer/songwriter George Tokoro (as Fujimoto). The American adapation granted Noah Cyrus (the younger sister of pop star, Miley Cyrus) and Frankie Jonas (the younger brother of the pop trio, The Jonas Brothers) with their first major roles apart from their older siblings. Typical of most American adaptions of Myazaki films, Ponyo hosted a large cast of big-name actors, amongst whom were Tina Fey (as Lisa), Matt Damon (as Koichi, Sosuke's father), Liam Neeson (as Fujimoto), Cate Blanchett (as Gran Mammare), and Lily Tomlin, Chloris Leachman and Betty White as Toki, Yoshie and Kairo, residents of the Himawari House for senior citizens.

Ponyo's breath-taking animation is further brought to life by the outstanding score written by Joe Hisaishi, who has worked with Myazaki since 1983's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. The film's highpoint (which brings new meaning to walking on water) occurs mid-way through the plot, leaving the first half and the denoument to be sustained by the relationship between Sosuke and Ponyo and the antics of the more eccentric and mystical characters. Ponyo is adorable as a newcomer to the human world, fascinated by trivial objects, such as lamps, and towels, yet fostering a remarkable ability to show empathy for those around her. Sosuke will impress viewers as Ponyo's knight in shining armor, who surpasses many young boys his age not only with an advanced intelligence of nautical tactics, but also with a profound comprehension of morals.

The cast is rounded out by a host of colorful, secondary characters. Fujimoto's swim through the garbage-infested waters of the harbor in Sosuke's town and his foiled attempt at a recovery operation of Ponyo bring a bit of humour to an otherwise serious presence. A foil to Fujimoto's role is Ponyo's mother, Gran Mammare, a wise and loving god-like titan who has lived as one with her beloved ocean since prehistoric times. The character who will leave viewers with the most laughs, however, is Lisa, Sosuke's mother, who works as an aid at the Himawari House and whose talent behind the wheel has all the elements of an animated version of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

At the root of Ponyo's innocent humour, however, are the penetrating themes of love, discovery, and acceptance. Although it does not surpass, or even equal the caliber of other Myazaki films, Ponyo is yet another of Myazaki's creations to warm audiences with a universal message. Viewers see through Ponyo's eyes an appreciation for the world and its inhabitants that have so often been taken for granted amid the turbulent goings-on of every-day lives. Undoubtedly, a spectacular and entertaining feature that symbolizes the power of nature and the love of the human soul.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Children Aren't As Stupid As You Think

Children Aren't As Stupid As You Think

Children aren’t as stupid as you think
They ask about the sky
Is it blue?
They see you
Striding out of Burlington’s and scurry down the street
With a negligee too small
To meet
Your waist, so you sneak to the 11th Avenue strip mall
To find a seamstress
To make it look like you have a set of keys
That opens a door just six blocks up; you never guess
That a pair of eyes in a stupid head is watching you
And sees
A lesson in conspicuous vanity.

You may sigh
And you may blink
But children aren’t as stupid as you think.

The taste of wisdom lingers
Still clinging to our tongues
The cry of devastation
Wraps round our fetal lungs
And plays upon our fancy
A fortissimo of tears
And stifles every happiness
In agony and fears

Into despair and wariness
All trust and virtue sink
‘Cause children aren’t as stupid as you think.

I knew a man named Jacob Pole
Who had a garden like that at Babylon
Rumor had it that he’d stole
Into Eden and tore a tuft of grass to grow upon his lawn.
He always turned the sprinklers on
When the trick-or-treaters came
I didn’t blame
Him for doing that. He kept his windows drawn,
And no one saw his crooked shape, till one night, he choked
On a mustard seed.
The newspaper said he stumbled out the door and soaked
Himself on the grass. I didn’t read
What happened after that.
But I knew that all the ghouls began to scat
And all the children too
Till Jacob, like them, wore a mask.

And it was blue.

So, somebody (I think it was a Neanderthal)
Came at him with a bone and all
And whacked him in the neck —
And made a wreck
Of the sacred grass ― but pulled him from the brink
‘Cause children aren’t as stupid as you think.

My Stab at Poetry

The Professor

I saw a man that I once knew
One hundred yards away
He raised one brow, he knew me too
But what were we to say?
He’d call me Miss, a fitting term
That fit most every guest
I’d call him none, a firm
Decision, lest
He crossed the room, a drink in hand
And sidled to my chair
And asked, in subtle reprimand
What I was doing there.
A lovely man, of ample brain,
But not a heart in mind.
A face, not bright, but simply plain
A judgment that was blind.
We’d talk of what I’d done to me
Since I had seen him last
I’d say that I and all could see
The welfare of the past
Had made him godly in the world
Of pocket pens and ties.
The hand of thought had gently curled
Around his learned eyes.
But then our talk would fall from this
As we spoke above the crowd
And he sidled to another Miss
As aimless as a cloud.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

City of God: Movie Review

In the City of God, "People got used to living in Vietnam, and more and more volunteers signed up to die." Based on a true story, City of God is the riveting tale of the 1960s takeover of Cicade de Deus, a Brazilian slum permeated by drug cartels and organized crime. The film is narrated by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), an easy-going, honest adolescent of the City of God, who dreams of becoming a photographer to escape the world of violence that seduces each of his comrades. On the opposite side of the film's long list of characters with atypical nicknames is Li'l Dice, a sadistic, power-hungry juvenile who robs, murders, and cheats his way to become the offical crime lord of the City of God.

Rocket and Li'l Dice cross paths frequently throughout the film, beginning a decade earlier with an innocent game of soccer that introduces the Tender Trio - Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen), Clipper (Jefechander Suplino), and Goose (Renato de Souza) - a group of rag-tag, amateur hoods who operate Robin Hood style by robbing gas trucks and local businesses, sharing the loot with the community. The group is eventually dispersed when Li'l Dice, out of his own blood-thirsty ambition, convinces them to rob a local motel. Although the holdup does not go as planned for the trio, it bolsters Li'l Dice into the driver's seat on a journey in which he is given the new moniker Li'l Ze and conquers all the drug cartels in the City of God with his charmismatic, child-hood friend, Benny, at his side. However, the pedestal begins to wobble, when Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a quiet, ex-army officer with a killer aim, joins forces with Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), Li'l Ze's main competition on the drug circuit and all out war begins in the city where, as Rocket observes, "if you run away, they get you and if you stay, they get you too."

Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, City of a God was a ground-breaking success in its native Brazil, starring actual natives of the Brazilian shanty towns known as favelas and even some from the City of God itself. The film's round-circle style accelerates the plot, which is jam-packed with a string of intense action scenes rife with heart-stopping excitement and profound emotion. However, the film's strongest aspect is its unveiled depiction of the harsh world of drug dealing, organized crime, and federal corruption. Despite its large cast of characters (which featured Matheus Nachtergaele as the only professional actor), every performance, from secondary roles to crowd extras, has some significance in the film's plot. That most of the scenes were improvised by inexperienced actors rather than doggedly rehearsed only enhances their genuity. Overall, an awe-inspiring crowd-pleaser that tops the list of universal crime-dramas.

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